Arab Achievements & the Convergence of Cultures (Part II)

Part 1 HERE

One of the most significant areas of Arab achievement was in the realm of language and education.  This is not surprising due to the fact that Arabs had a long and meaningful love affair with language, stories and poetry.   In the Islamic era, the chief text for reading and studying naturally was the Koran, and the school itself was directly connected to the mosque if not literally in the mosque (Hitti 408).  The Arabic language went through significant changes under the scholarly hands of al-Hijjaj, the viceroy of Iraq in the early eighth century.  He developed the Arabic diacritical marks to distinguish visually between the different sounds and symbols of the language (Hitti 219).  Baghdad also became the site of the “House of Wisdom” which was a hybrid academy and library established in 830 A.D.  It became the most important educational institution in over a thousand years (Hitti 310).

Wherever the Arab Muslim influence spread, education and learning spread as well.  In Muslim Spain, al-Hakam established twenty-seven free schools in the Spanish Muslim capital; he also founded the University of Cordova whose prominence uniquely attracted both Muslim and Christian students not only from Spain but also from Europe, Africa and Asia (Hitti 530).  Even the capital of Spain housed a library of more than 400,000 volumes (Hitti 531).  Muslim Spain boasted a literacy rate completely unheard of in Christian Europe which had an extremely meager and modest education system during this same time period (Hitti 531).

What is important to remember is that Arabic achievements in these fields continued to derive itself from many different setting and from many different types of people. Many of the distinguished scholars in disciplines related to language and linguistics were not even from Arab descent.  Al-Jawhari, the lexicographer, was a Turk; ibn-Jinni who wrote philosophical treatises was the son of a Greek slave (Hitti 402). The greatest scholar of Muslim Spain, who was also one of Islam’s most prolific writers, was the grandson of a Spanish Muslim who converted from Christianity (Hitti 558).  Even Arabic literary works which greatly influenced European fables and tales of the thirteenth century were themselves influenced by their Persian-Indo predecessors (Hitti 559).  But regardless of origin, it is impossible to deny the Arabic influence on the written language and literary thought of both Spain and Europe.  In the Spanish town of Toledo, Arabic was used as the lingua franca for law and business for two centuries after Toledo had been conquered by Christians during the crusades (Hitti 543).  This is certainly a far cry from the early days of the Islamic era when Greek-writing officials on the Arabic peninsula were retained in their duties as book keepers simply because they were the only ones who were familiar with the practice (Hitti 217).

These many Arab achievements would never have spread and influenced so many other places without the movement of ideas and people of the Muslim world.  Muslim traders greatly expanded the reach of the Muslim world making the movement of Arab knowledge, culture, and language into one of its greatest achievements.  From the Bay of Biscay to the Indus River, the great Muslim expansion influenced many regions.  The centennial anniversary of Muhammad’s death shows a vast empire of Arabic Islamic rule impressive in breadth (Hitti 215).  Muslim traders reached China and Zanzibar between the seventh and ninth centuries (Hitti 383).   Arab coinage excavated in Finland and Germany testifies to the widespread nature of Arab commerce (Hitti 305).  In fact, the first reliable written account of Russia was written in 921 A.D. by an Arab (Hitti 384). This widespread trading network truly brought innovation and influence to faraway places.  It also complicates the analysis of Arab achievement.  For instance, the manufacturing of paper in Europe did not begin until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries after being introduced through Muslim Spain; however, this manufacturing knowledge which the Arabs have had for several centuries was derived from the convergence of Arab and Chinese cultures a few centuries before that (Hitti 347).

The first few centuries of the Islamic era saw many achievements original to the Arabs themselves and many more achievements which were derived from knowledge gleamed from others. The Arab himself was as diverse in ethnicity and culture as the achievements that he accomplished.  This diversity that was spread over a large portion of the globe impacted the world in such a dramatic fashion that the west and east continues to see its influence to this very day.

Works Cited

Hitti, Philip K.  History of the Arabs. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002. Print.



Arab Achievements & the Convergence of Cultures (Part I)

During the first few centuries after Muhammad’s death, the Muslim Arab culture converged with many ancient people groups in and around the Arabian Peninsula.  This diverse Arab population accomplished many achievements in both the sciences and humanities which in turn influenced vast regions for many centuries to come.  Among the many significant Arab achievements, it can be difficult to separate that which was truly original to the Arabs from that which was derived from their Greek, Roman, and Persian forerunners.   Arab achievements were derived from a combination of original research accomplished by a very diverse group of Muslim Arabs and from a diffusion of knowledge from other sources.

One of the important reasons that foreign influences became building blocks for many Arab achievements is that there were many adjacent regions which quickly accepted Islamic religion.  Those regions had preexisting contact with other cultures which contributed to the wealth of knowledge of the Arabs.  When looking at Arab achievements, one cannot look only at the Arabian Peninsula but must acknowledge the wide range of influences and cultures from people spread over North Africa, Europe and the Middle East who likewise made contributions.  This diversity is what makes Arab history so rich.  As Islam spread in the seventh and eighth centuries, the term Arab was taking on a new meaning less defined by ethnicity and more defined by religion and common culture.   An Arab became known to be anyone who spoke Arabic and professed Islam as their religion (Hitti 240).  The contributions of an Egyptian scholar, a Persian doctor, and a Christian mathematician during the time of the caliphate would all fall into the category of Arab achievements (Hitti 240).  The Greek and Roman influences from the west would converge with the Persian and Indian influences from the east.  The total body of work in numerous fields of study that make up the historical achievements of the Arab world depended both on original thought and knowledge learned from elsewhere.

Medical advances seen during the first two centuries of the Islamic era were significant in several respects.  The historical reference point of scientific Arab medicine comes mainly from Greek sources with some additional influence from Persia (Hitti 254).  Using this knowledge, Arabs made significant and original strides in the area of the development of drugs and community hygiene.   In the eighth and ninth centuries, Arabs established the very first apothecary, the first school of pharmacy, and the first encyclopedia of pharmacy (Hitti 364).  Arab physicians would travel to different places administering drugs to the sick; they would visit jails to treat prisoners; they demonstrated knowledge about and a concern for public hygiene that was simply unknown to the rest of the world at that time (Hitti 364-365).  An Arab also produced the chief source of chemical knowledge known to the world which stood unsurpassed until the fourteenth century (Hitti 366).  While the original medical contributions of the Arab world were truly impressive, what may have been their most influential medical achievement was to preserve this medical knowledge in encyclopedic form.  In the tenth century, the Persian al-Razi produced a ten volume encyclopedia of medical knowledge which greatly influenced the Latin West for many centuries; this series of books contained an exhaustive picture of medieval medical knowledge which was attained from Greek, Persian, and Hindu sources (Hitti 366-367).

In addition to medicine, Arab scholars and researchers produced an impressive amount of original research in various scientific fields.  In mathematics, the Arabs were influenced by the Hindu number system and the concept of zero (Hitti 378).  The Arabs built upon this knowledge to produce concepts and treatises that would influence many parts of the world including Europe and Asia.  Arabic numerals and algorithms found their way westward into Europe; in fact, a translated Arab mathematics text introduced algebra to Europe and became their principal mathematics textbook until the sixteenth century (Hitti 379).  Other significant scientific achievements by the Arab world included the introduction of the objective experiment which significantly improved Greek experimental models (Hitti 380).